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Posts about Restaurant reviews

Burger Friday: Mona Restaurant

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 11, 2014 - 8:53 AM

The burger: “I hate the term ‘slider,’” said Lisa Hanson, chef/owner of Mona Restaurant. That nomenclature-driven aversion may play a role in the demise of the pair of diminutive burgers that once graced the small plates-focused lunch menu at her downtown Minneapolis restaurant. I don’t have a memory of those burgers, but having had a crack at their replacement, I’m not missing them.

What a burger. Its vast appeal is rooted in Hanson’s daily bread-making ritual. “It’s just a basic brioche dough, very simple, with lots of butter,” she said. Butter, the miracle worker, right? It's a hamburger bun for the ages. Not that they need it, but after they're split, Hanson hits them with a little extra butter before giving them a faint flavor-enhancing toast.

The patty is similarly impressive. The grass-fed beef hails from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., and Hanson enriches it with egg and several judiciously applied goodness-boosters, including onion, garlic “and a couple of other mysterious things,” said Hanson with a laugh but not revealing her secrets. From there, the meat is loosely pressed into thick patties that are wide enough to meet the bun’s edges, and grilled to a just-above medium rare.

Toppings are restrained, just a fragrant pile of caramelized onions, their natural sugars coaxed out into the open after a low-and-slow stint on the stove, and a silky, barely melted slice of smoked Gouda. Hanson also includes a side of chile mayonnaise that tiptoes around spiciness, although the beef’s rich bite doesn’t need the extra heft. Instead, save it for the fries.  

As burgers go, it may not sound like a lot, but it all adds up. “I wish that there was something more exciting to tell you about,” said Hanson. “But if you do all of the components correctly, that’s what will really make a burger stand out.” How right she is.

Price: $12, and served only at lunch.

Fries: Included, a huge portion of generously garnished skin-on spuds.

Ticking clock: Hanson changes her menu every few months, and this iteration isn’t long for this world; a few weeks, tops. Next up? “I’m thinking about a turkey burger,” she said. “A lighter meat, for spring. With basil. I’m not sure about the cheese, but maybe a slab of Canadian bacon, and a fried egg on top. We haven’t done a turkey burger yet, so I’m excited about it.”

Hurry, summer: The 2-year-old restaurant doesn't have much of a street presence (Ok, it has zilch street presence), which ushers it into a semi-permanent berth in the out-of-sight-out-of-mind file. That's a shame, because Hanson's place is both an excellent (and skyway-connected) business lunch venue and a serene, conversation-friendly dinner destination. While burgers aren't a part of the dinner menu -- a shame for anyone with a post-work burger-and-beer hankering -- Hanson does kick in free parking after 4 p.m. in the building's underground ramp (which is accessed from 8th Street). Another perk: When it opens for the season, the restaurant's patio has the advantage of being located away from busy downtown streets.

Address book: 333 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-259-8636. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 10 pm. Saturday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Burger Friday: BoneYard Kitchen & Bar

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: April 4, 2014 - 7:46 AM

The burger: So this is how my mind operates. One bite into the burger at BoneYard Kitchen & Bar, and my brain immediately went flying to the 1966 novelty pop hit, “I Love Onions,” kazoos and all. Yeah, I know. Anyway. My point is that onion lovers will flip over this bruiser of a burger.

“It’s my grandmother’s hamburger secret,” said chef Jason Bush. “Growing up, she was the one who taught me how to make the hamburger meat. She'd finely mince the onions until they were really mushy. She’d squeeze the juice out of them, then add that onion pulp to the burger meat, ending with a splash of Worcestershire sauce.”

The flavor of those carefully chopped onions really comes to life under the grill’s heat. The patty is taken to a straight-up medium, bordering on medium-well, without sacrificing juiciness.

“My grandmother was old school,” said Bush with a laugh. “She came from the generation that cooked their burgers to well done, and if they were thick, they’d turn out like hockey pucks.”

Which explains why, under close examination, you’ll see that the single, noticeably thick patty is actually two quarter-pound patties, stacked together, with a slice of white Cheddar draped over the top of each. That format turns the cheese between the two patties into a kind of stroll down Juicy Lucy Lane.

More onions come in the form of a garnish, a cap of thick-cut red onions that Bush rubs in olive oil and dresses with his fried chicken's spice blend, grilling them until they take on a smoky goodness. The final touch, onion-wise, is channeled via a sturdy, lightly toasted onion bun, baked at Breadsmith. Add crunchy iceberg lettuce and a few generous dollops of housemade mayonnaise, and you've got yourself one terrific burger. 

Price: $10.95 at lunch and late-night, $11.95 at dinner.

Fries: Included. They're cottage fries, and I can’t endorse the greasy, overtly garlicky and over-fried results.

On the side: The impressive baked beans are fortified with smoky brisket, sweetened with molasses and punched with garlic and vinegar. Even better is the potato salad. Here’s my theory on potato salad: the one you grew up eating is the one that becomes your lifelong standard. The BoneYard version bears a remarkable similarity to my mother’s, which means that I was tempted to order a second helping.

Ok, Mom’s preparation swerves off into a few slight deviations. Judy prefers peeled russets vs. skin-ons, and she’s prone to reaching for the Miracle Whip – yes, I was raised Lutheran – rather than the mayonnaise jar. Still, the uncomplicated BoneYard version is remarkable similar and equally delicious, just lots of firm, bite-sized potato chunks dressed in a mustard-blended mayonnaise and tossed with plenty of celery and hard-cooked egg. 

Other sides include grits, mashed sweet potatoes, collard greens with bacon and other Southern comfort foods, all priced at $3.95 for a single serving and $6.95 for a shareable portion. 

“I’m not trying to be the avant-garde, award-winning guy,” said Bush, who was born in Albany, Ga., and was raised in Punta Gorda, Fla. “I want to be the guy who cooks like you’re coming to Sunday supper at grandma’s house. I’m grateful for this opportunity to bring authentic Southern cooking to Minnesota. A lot of these recipes are my family’s recipes, and they’re older than me."

A question: Politely approaching this gigantic burger from a handheld perspective is a bit of a stretch, which makes me wonder why restaurants insist of serving such challenging-to-handle food items in cramped baskets. Could someone please hand me a plate?

Address book: 2841 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-455-6688. Open 11 a.m. through midnight Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to midnight Sunday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Burger Friday: Lunds & Byerly's Kitchen

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 28, 2014 - 2:14 PM

The burger: Diners have two options for engaging in the ordering process at Lunds & Byerly’s Kitchen, the new dining-supermarket prototype in downtown Wayzata. The high-tech alternative involves tapping the selection into one of the seemingly zillions of iPads affixed to the dining room’s tabletops (mirroring the same setup at the restaurants up and down the G Concourse at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport). It’s quick and relatively intuitive, but every time I resort to the self-checkout setups at Home Depot or Target, I can’t help but think that I’m contributing to the loss of someone’s job. Also, I prefer to deal with an actual human being. An iPad is efficient but not terribly hospitable.

Which explains why I was standing at the counter. The employee taking my order was brimming over with such a prodigious amount of I’m-so-happy-to-here attitude that I couldn’t help but make a mental note: Try to find this kind of enthusiasm in your own work. And straight off, she asked one of my favorite burger-related questions: “Pink, or no pink?” she said.

I chose the latter, she swiped my credit card and I took a seat. As a frequent solo diner, I’m always on the lookout for favorable counter seating. This place has it, to burn, in the form of a handsome, horseshoe-shaped bar, which is curved to maximize conversation and roomy enough to order a slew of plates and spread them out in front of you.

Anyway. The burger arrived in just under eight minutes, and I’m not sure if it’s because I was crazy-hungry or because of the burger, but the aroma that floated up off that plate was intoxicating. The thick third-pound patty had a char that bordered on crusted. One tantalizingly charbroiled bite in and it was obvious – in such a good way -- that the kitchen favors the rare end of the pink spectrum. This was a burger that just ran juices, and that velvety rare beef was imbued with a subtle mineral-ey quality.

It gets better. The toppings were spot-on. The patty was draped in a thin, melty layer of smoky Gouda. What a smart choice, as it totally complements the featured attraction, a chopped onion compote that’s simmered to sweetness in beer and teased with smoky bacon. There’s a generous pool of tangy mustard aioli, served on the side, and it’s also first-rate.

As for the bun, it’s ok: Nicely soft smf gently toasted. Its best attribute is that it’s content to remain in the background rather than compete with that expertly grilled patty, or those clever garnishes. I consumed the whole thing, a rare Burger Friday occurrence. I’ll definitely be back.

Price: $9.

Fries: None. There’s a side of potato chips. They’re fine.

Keeping it local: How great is it that the bar taps into so many Twin Cities-brewed beers? There’s Surly, Excelsior, 612, Summit, Lift Bridge, Harriet, Badger Hill and Fulton, and probably one or two that I'm overlooking. It speaks volumes when a mass-market grocer – even one as savvy as Lunds and Byerly’s – embraces the local craft beer phenomenon. Hurrah.

A copy desk-esque query: Is it Lunds & Byerly’s Kitchen? Lunds and Byerlys Kitchen? Lunds & Byerlys Kitchen? I’ve seen all three, a surprising incongruity from such a brand-conscious company. Here’s my executive decision: I’m going with the first one.

Address book: 250 Superior Blvd., Wayzata, 952-476-1122. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Burger Friday: Oak Grill

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 21, 2014 - 5:02 PM

The burger: I dropped in on the Oak Grill earlier this week for a late lunch, and given what I knew was probably going on four floors below in the store’s eighth-floor auditorium, the dining room seemed to be the very definition of the calm before the storm. It wasn’t exactly busy; I counted maybe a dozen fellow diners, although that was hardly unexpected given that it was 1:45 p.m., late for work-ethic Minneapolis. Still, being led to that premium near-the-fireplace seat felt like a gift, because within a few days the restaurant is going to briefly become one of the toughest tables in town, thanks to the annual event that I will forever call the Dayton’s-Bachman’s Flower Show.

Of course it now goes by a different and rather tongue-twisting name: Macy’s Flower Show Gardens by Bachman’s, and when it opens Sunday (and runs, free, through April 6), many of its visitors are going to find themsleves at the Oak Grill. That's sugar-coating it. More like, they're going to inundate the Oak Grill.

It's not a stretch to imagine that a significant percentage of those azalea- and tulip-seekers will stick to the restaurant’s department store basics: chicken pot pie, meatloaf, an excellent wild rice soup, almond-crusted walleye with mashed potatoes and other comfort-food fare. And big, doughy popovers, the house specialty.

But for those in the mood for something a tad more contemporary, it's a relief to know that the Oak Grill isn’t a museum, preserved in some amber-hazed fog from yesteryear. Case in point: the BLT Jam Burger, which manages to tap into so many burger crazes that it could be taking its cues from the trend-conscious Oval Room during its pre-Macy’s heyday.

Pretzel bun? Check. A criss-cross of crisp, applewood-smoked bacon? Yep. An unexpected cheese? Uh-huh (it's a semi-soft Monterey Jack that’s marbled with tangy blue cheese, and it's terrific).

In place of the standard-issue raw or caramelized onions, there's a generous flourish of crispy fried onions (truth to tell, maybe too many; save your deep-fried appetite for the fries), a welcome textural surprise. A giant lettuce leaf adds color and subtle crunch. Then there's the marvelous thin-sliced refrigerator pickles, so juicy and crunchy. I'm still kicking myself for not asking for extras.

Best of all, garnish-wise, is the T portion of this BLT-hamburger mash-up. No dreary, off-season tomato slices for this one. Instead, the kitchen wisely cooks down tomatoes, concentrating their flavor into a thick, slightly sweet jam then packing it with fresh herbs. It's swiped (not generously enough, at least for my tastes) across the bottom of that buttered and gently toasted pretzel bun, and it's a marvelous solution to the eternal Lousy Winter Tomato issue – honestly, when tomatoes are this cottony and flavorless, why serve them any other way?

It’s intentional that I’m leaving the patty for last, because thinking about it makes my shoulders shrug. Love the deep char flavor, and the way it stretches to the bun’s edges (this is definitely a knife-and-fork burger). But each bite was crying out for salt, and my medium-rare request arrived on the far side of medium-well.

Still, this Oak Grill regular was impressed. Who knows? On my next visit, I just might skip my usual chicken salad and order the burger. For this creature of habit, that's saying something.

Price: $12.95.    

Fries: Included. Super-crisp, wonderfully salty and freckled with chopped parsley.  

Helpful tip: During the flower show, plan ahead and make a reservation, especially during peak hours.

Bonus: As a flower show extra, Oak Grill diners will receive a free German chocolate cupcake with the purchase of any entree. The bar is adding a half-dozen floral-themed cocktails, including a shake of rum, hibiscus syrup and lime juice poured over ice, and an elderflower liqueur blended with sparkling wine and a splash of soda. Nice.

Bonus, part 2: During the flower show, Macy's will be hosting a series of cooking demonstrations in the store's lower level cookware area. On March 24: chefs from Marin Restaurant. March 25: Macy's chef Susan Johnson. March 27: Union Fish Market chefs Lucas Almendinger and Shane Oporto. March 28: Miami star chef Michelle Bernstein. March 31: Macy's chef Marie Hanson. April 1: bakers from Sweet Retreat Bakery. April 2: chef Erik Weed from Rinata. April 3: Macy's chef Joe Studenburgh. All demonstrations begin at noon and are free and open to the public.

Parting shot: Along with the service staff’s friendly familiarity, one of the reasons why I enjoy visiting this downtown classic is the opportunity to bask in its reassuring timelessness. The sedate dining room – paneled in oak, of course, and outfitted with crisp white tablecloths -- hasn’t changed much since the Dayton brothers opened the 12th-floor restaurant in 1947. In this post-Dayton's world, the sales floors aren’t what they used to be, but the store’s food division has succeeded at keeping the Oak Grill in tip-top shape, an effort that this tradition-minded diner appreciates.  

Address book: 700 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-375-2938. During "The Secret Garden," the Oak Grill is open for lunch and an early-ish (to 7 p.m.) dinner daily.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Burger Friday: Merlins Rest

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: March 14, 2014 - 9:55 PM

The burger: A first-rate bar should have a first-rate burger, amirite? Someone at Merlins Rest obviously got the memo, because the basic burger at this British Isles-obsessed pub is a total keeper.

The headliner in this act is defintely the patty, a prodigiously thick, hand-formed, one third-pound behemoth of lean, grass-fed beef, taken to perfect medium on the inside and the barest trace of char on the outside. The meat is judiciously seasoned, and its flavor really blossoms on the stovetop. For appetites accustomed to the bland nothingness of a McDonald’s or Wendy’s burger, the patty that anchors the Merlins Rest burger will be something of a revelation.

For a dollar surcharge, the kitchen will add one of seven cheeses – including Stilton, naturally – but this is a burger that’s best consumed minus the dairy topping. Why cloak the goodness of that delicious beef?

Garnishes are minimal and not terribly exciting: a slice of a typically flavorless and cottony winter tomato, the requisite lettuce leaf. As for the bun, it’s a bit on the cotton candy-ish side, but its drab blandness dissipates via plenty of butter and a quick toast. Sometimes, skipping the frills really hits the spot, and this is one of those instances. 

Price: $10.50.

Fries: Not included (a chips upgrade is $1.50). The burger is served with house-made potato chips. The verdict? Meh. Not bad, but they could benefit from a thinner cut, a crisper fry and a more generous hand with the salt shaker.

At the bar: A major draw is the bar’s selection of imported ales, porters, stouts, lagers, pilsners and hard ciders.

Bonus round: Heartfelt huzzahs to the decision-maker keeping TV screens out of sight and choosing to nurture an environment where people – yes, even strangers, in Minnesota -- talk to one another. When I dropped in, the outgoing barkeep was hosting his own version of improvised version of “Jeopardy!,” tossing out questions for the late-lunch crowd. You know, “What’s the most populous state capital?” (answer: Phoenix) and “Which country has hosted the Winter Olympics three times?” (it’s France: Chamonix in 1924, Grenoble in 1968 and Albertville in 1992) and generally spreading bonhomie in all directions.

This weekend: Speaking of good times, Merlins Rest will give St. Patrick’s Day its due through a crowded schedule of events, including a full Irish breakfast served Saturday, Sunday and Monday starting at 9 a.m.

Apologies: Technical difficulties presented an earlier post of Burger Friday.

Address book: 3601 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-216-2419.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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